(above photo from Korin Gamadji Institute.)
The AFL has aligned itself closely with the cause of reconciliation between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal Australia. It regards itself as being a progressive agent of change in promoting Indigenous rights and well-being. There is much infrastructure in place to show the work of the AFL with Aboriginal Australia: the yearly Indigenous Round (highlighted by the Dreamtime at the G game), the Indigenous All-Stars game as part of the pre-season, the Korin Gamadji Institute is based at Richmond Football Club, clubs are encouraged to develop good relations with remote Aboriginal communities.
The mood of footy in the 2000s contrasts dramatically with that of the 1980s and 1990s – and no doubt earlier. Nicky Winmar and Michael Long took landmark stances against racist abuse in 1993 and 1995 respectively. Winmar, in 1993, stood defiant and pointed to his skin – silently – while facing the crowd after receiving the usual torrent abuse from the Collingwood-faithful at Victoria Park. Long, in 1995, refused to be abused by Damian Monkhorst, a Collingwood ruckman. The then AFL chairman Ross Oakley mediated a meeting between the pair in which Long (and Monkhorst) were obliged to stay silent. Winmar is an enigmatic figure and rarely appears in the media. Long, is an activist and figurehead of Aboriginal Australia.
I am a Richmond fan and am interested in the story of Shane Edwards: partly because he is a brilliant player, partly because he played for the North Adelaide Roosters as a junior and partly because he speaks in such an understated manner. His club have given him increasing media attention over the past couple of years as he has asserted himself in the team as a leader. Edwards has spoken of his learning of his family’s history. In the paragraph below, he states how the more he has learned about himself, the better a player he has been able to become.
I watch football for the improbable and poetic acts athletes perform: twisting, spinning, jumping – maintaining their balance and poise. Interviews and the quotes of players are so often trivialised and set apart from serious, proper discourse. We like our footballers stupid. And, their buffoonery is celebrated and packaged up in The Footy Show. Edwards is privileged by his position as a professional player to be able to tell his story: but, to listen to it is also a privilege and a moment to gain access to what otherwise remains silent and out of the public discourse on ‘reconciliation’. Edwards’ stories show reconciliation through his narrative.
Footy and the discourse of footballers is inseparable from reconciliation. Shane Edwards learns of the courage of his forebears, Adam Goodes calls out a racist crowd and then defends the very person who called him an ape; Stan Grant – a prominent journalist – develops his discourse on the ‘racism inherent in the Australian dream’ based on the abuse of Goodes.
Shane Edwards says,
“I was always worried that I didn’t really know enough to have an opinion on a lot of things. […] A big part of realising more about who I [am] has directly influenced how well I play football. Mainly because knowing more about myself, means knowing I can be more of myself on the field. It is hard to explain. I’ll be the best me, out there [on the field]. I’m not trying to emulate other players – because I can’t do that. […] I’ve got learn when to give my share; take my responsibility. […] When I told some people about where I was coming [for the Indigenous Camp] they told me how much fun I would have. But, when I got here, I realised what a dark, historical place this was: where some terrible things happened. I was embarrassed I didn’t know more.” Edwards’ All-Star Experience, 25th February, 2015
Two years earlier, Adam Goodes, spoke:
“Two days ago I had the privilege of meeting the great man Nicky Winmar … and what he was able to do for us, 20 years ago … and to make a stand myself and say, you know, ‘racism has a face’. Last night, it was a 13 year old girl. But it is not her fault. She is 13. She is still so innocent. I don’t put any blame on her. Unfortunately, it is what she hears and the environment in which she has grown up in that has made her think that it is okay to call people names. I can guarantee now, she would have no idea how it would make someone feel by calling them an ‘ape’. […] I am loving the support from my family and friends and through social media, but the person who needs the most support now is the little girl. […] It took me back to high-school. Being bullied because of my appearance. I didn’t stand up for myself at high-school. I’m a lot more confident. I’m a lot more proud about who I am and my culture and I decided to stand up last night and I’ll continue to stand up. […] It is not a Collingwood issue, it is not an AFL issue, it is a society issue. And, what are our parents teaching our kids? […] I always go out to represent my football club and be proud of who I am: a young, Adnyamathanha man.” (25th May, 2013)
In 2015, during the Indigenous Round, Richmond Football Club wore a jumper designed by Derek Summerfield, a distant cousin of Shane Edwards. The team would wear the jumper a second time as support for Goodes after the continual booing of him. Edwards, again:
“This year’s jumper represents families that have been taken away or lost and finding their way back and never being forgotten, with their long journey finding their way back to family. And it has extra special meaning to me because my family has gone through things like that. Avoiding the stolen generation and taking extreme measures to stay alive and to survive the repercussions of what happened.”(Shane Edwards)
Shane’s auntie, Kay, had this to say about him:
“[Shane] was ready to hear more. And it was my duty to do that [to tell him his family’s history]. […] And for him to play at the level he is playing. And to do it, while wearing Aboriginal designs on his jumper…that makes me so proud.”
Stan Grant, spoke recently in a debate, and his words have gained much attention:
“In the winter of 2015, Australia turned to face itself. It looked into its soul and it had to ask this question: who are we? What sort of country do we want to be? And this happened in a place that is most holy, most sacred to Australians…it happened on the sporting field. […] Thousands of voices rose to hound an Indigenous man. A man who was told he wasn’t Australian. A man who was told he wasn’t Australian of the Year. And they hounded that man into submission. I can’t speak for what lay in the hearts of the people who booed Adam Goodes. But, I can tell you what we heard, when we heard those boos. We heard a sound that was very familiar to us. We heard a howl. We heard a howl of humiliation that echoes across two centuries of dispossession, injustice, suffering and survival. We heard the howl of the Australian dream and it said to us again: ‘you’re not welcome’.
The Australian dream. We sing of it. And we recite it in verse. ‘Australian’s all let us rejoice for we are young and free.’ My people die young in this country. We die ten years younger than average Australians. And we are far from free. We are fewer than three percent of the Australian population, yet we are 25% – a quarter of those Australians, locked up in our prisons. And if you are a juvenile, it is worse: it is 50%. An Indigenous child is more likely to be locked up in prison than they are to finish high-school.”
The footy field is a place on which to perform and assert Aboriginality; ‘to deny the howls of humiliation’; to gesture silently; to play and become. But the more the AFL trumpets its progressive stance, the more I think something is being not quite acknowledged. Like the lack of Aboriginal coaches and managers in the AFL or the lack of Aboriginal commentators (for games in the AFL) or whatever job you want to point to. The courageous, painful and proud family stories so openly shared by Edwards and Goodes provide the counter to the AFL’s grandstanding.